They ain’t so dumb

Scientists look to explain animals’ disaster response: What do they know that we don’t?

Full Article

January 9, 2005

Scientists look to explain animals’ disaster response

By Don Oldenburg
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – In Khao Lak, 50 miles north of Phuket along Thailand’s western coast, a dozen elephants giving tourists rides began trumpeting hours before the Dec. 26 tsunami – about the time the 9.0-magnitude quake fractured the ocean floor. An hour before the wall of waves slammed the resort area, the elephants reportedly again grew agitated and began wailing. Just before disaster struck, they headed for higher ground – some breaking their chains to flee.

Flamingos that breed this time of year at Point Calimere sanctuary on India’s southern coast left for safer forests well before the tsunami hit, forest officials told the India News.

At the hard-hit Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, stunned wildlife officials reported that hundreds of elephants, leopards, tigers, wild boar, deer, water buffalo, monkeys and smaller mammals and reptiles had escaped unscathed.

And while large turtles have been found dead in the debris along the shore of Indonesia’s devastated Aceh province, the tsunami’s impact on wildlife was “limited,” says Frank Momberg, coordinator for emergency response in Aceh for the conservation group Fauna & Flora International.

Tales of animals behaving strangely before the quake and of wildlife escaping to safety have abounded in the wake of the tsunami, raising anew questions about what these members of the animal kingdom knew that humans didn’t – and what, if anything, can be learned from it.

Seismologists have sophisticated instruments that can measure quake factors during and after the fact, but experts admit no one can predict exactly when one will happen. Some scientists say certain animals have a kind of sensory hard-wiring that can detect earthquakes ahead of time, which one day might be replicated in man-made instruments.

Reports of animals’ “sixth sense” in detecting hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions long before the earth starts shaking go back centuries. Rats racing from buildings, sparrows taking flight in flocks, dogs howling incessantly: It’s an impressive track record – though anecdotal.

After the Dec. 26 tsunami, a Danish man staying in Ao Sane Beach, north of Phuket, wrote on a Danish Web site: “Dogs are smarter than all of us. … (They) started running away up to the hilltops long before we even realized what was coming.”

Science is iffy on a subject that, for obvious reasons, is difficult to replicate in a laboratory. And there are always explanations and theories that mitigate the mystery of the anecdotes. In the case of this tsunami, says Ken Grant, project coordinator at the Humane Society International Asia office in Bali, Indonesia, a lot of animals escaped simply because they tend to live inland, in the forest.

Nevertheless, some scientists are looking for explanations of why some species behave strangely before natural catastrophes, by correlating the animals’ sensory abilities with microscopic and invisible sensory stimuli.

“I don’t know if I’d call this a sixth sense so much as a better sense,” Grant says. “Most animals know that when the ground starts to shake something is wrong.”


Animals’ sensory physiology – super-sensitive to sound, temperature, touch, vibration, electrostatic and chemical activity and magnetic fields – gives them a head start in the days and hours before natural calamities.

“It appears a lot of animals have sensory organs that detect these micro-tremors and micro-changes that we cannot possibly monitor,” says George Pararas-Carayannis, a former University of Hawaii oceanographer and geophysicist who leads the Tsunami Society.

“It’s a sensitivity that we humans don’t have. But animals through millions of years of evolution have developed it, and that’s how they have been able to survive as a species. It is run or perish,” says Pararas-Carayannis, author of the 2001 book “The Big One: The Next Great California Earthquake – Why, Where, and When It Will Happen.”

Why not humans? When an imminent disaster so unimaginably primal as this occurs, can only creatures in tune with nature at its most elemental sense it coming?

Research shows that many fish are sensitive to low-frequency vibrations and detect tremors long before humans. The bullhead catfish detects magnitude-2 earthquakes so weak people can’t feel them at the top of 10-story buildings, says John Caprio, a biological sciences professor at Louisiana State University specializing in fish senses.

Other animals are also extremely sensitive to ground vibrations. Lynette Hart, professor of animal behavior at the University of California-Davis, says that’s what probably cued the elephants, which most likely felt the quake in their feet and trunks. Elephants, she says, are known to “lay their trunks on the ground when an airplane or truck generates large seismic noise,” as if to feel it.

With the elephant’s intelligence – its brain is the largest of terrestrial creatures – “they can figure out what direction the stimulus is coming from, how strong it is, and what evasive action to take,” Hart says.

Some animals may have heard the tsunami coming from the moment the quake erupted under the ocean. Species of birds, dogs, elephants, tigers and other animals can detect “infrasound” – frequencies in the range of 1-3 hertz, compared with humans’ 100-200-hertz range, says psychobiologist James Walker, director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University. “It’s sensitivity to such a low frequency range that most people wouldn’t call it sound anymore.”

“The Naked Ape” author and animal behavioralist Desmond Morris says cats and dogs are sensitive to sudden electromagnetic changes – like those that precede an earthquake – which is why “many dogs shiver and become scared when a thunderstorm is approaching.”

“Canines’ sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times superior to that of humans,” says Walker, who is starting research to train dogs to detect bladder and prostate cancer in human urine. Dogs’ olfactory senses are so sensitive – they’re said to be able to smell fear – that it’s possible they could pick up on chemical changes in the air before an earthquake.

Background noise

There’s evidence not all animals pick up on disasters, cautions Ben Hart, Lynette Hart’s husband and a UC-Davis professor of animal physiology. His studies have shown that domestic animals’ pre-quake behavior is inconsistent. “It is only a few earthquakes that are preceded by unusual behavior,” he says. “Most are not, and we don’t have the slightest idea why.”

Ruth Buskirk, a senior lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, says one reason may be “background noise” – the clutter of sensory stimuli before quakes.

In 1981, Buskirk reviewed the unusual behavior of eels, frogs, snakes, turtles, sea birds, pigeons, chickens, dogs, cats, horses, cows, deer, rats and mice before 36 earthquakes on four continents. She crunched the data every which way. “Our main conclusion was, boy, the animals can sense anything, including very minor changes that happen before earthquakes, but there’s so much background noise during an earthquake” that it’s unclear what stimuli the animals are reacting to.

Triggering instinct

In the 12 hours before Hurricane Charley battered Florida’s Gulf Coast last year, 14 electronically tagged blacktip sharks off Sarasota bolted into deeper waters. They stayed away for up to two weeks, then returned. None of them had left its home otherwise in four years of monitoring, according to scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

The sharks did the same thing three years earlier when Tropical Storm Gabrielle hit.

“I think these animals are more attuned to their environment than we give them credit for,” says Michelle Heupel, a staff scientist. “When things change, they may not understand why it’s happening, but the change itself may trigger some instinct to move to an area that is safer for them.”

Heupel says a big drop in barometric pressure coincided with the sharks’ abrupt flight. “Not that they thought, `Oh my God, the pressure’s changing and we’ve got to go,’ ” she says. “We know so little about how animals sense these things. These findings are just a glimpse into what animals are doing when we’re not looking.”